Weapons of the Spirit

IssueApril 2009
Feature by Roger Stephenson

From the first, the Quakers have taken a clear stand for peace and against military action. In 1660, soon after the movement’s founding, Margaret Fell, the Mother of Quakerism, gave her testimony: “We are a people that follow after those things that make of Peace, Love and Unity.”

The Quaker Tapestry, displayed in the Quaker Tapestry Exhibition Centre, tells the history of Quakerism. A new exhibition, Weapons of the Spirit, has been created in a small space within the main exhibition. It shows the variety of Quaker responses to conflict and explores ways in which Quakers have become involved in conflict issues from the 17th century to the present day. At its centre are the words and stories of individuals, tales of bravery, sadness and even humour. A CD-ROM shows stories of Dutch Quakers who hid Jewish families during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. A reminder of the quiet heroism of ordinary people.

Panels on the wall and items in display cabinets show two contrasting pacifist responses to “The Great War”.

Quakers like Henry Rodwell, who is featured here, became conscientious objectors and worked on the land or as hospital orderlies or went to prison for refusing to fight. Rodwell went to prison.

Others joined the Friends Ambulance Unit which sent over 1,000 members to France to work in hospitals, on ambulance convoys and in hospital ships. The same two responses continued in the Second World War.

In January 1854, three Quakers – Robert Charleton, Henry Peace and Joseph Sturge – travelled by train, horse-drawn coach and sleigh to St Petersburg to speak to the Czar to try to avert the Crimean War.

The Boer War (1899-1902) aroused extreme feelings of jingoism in Britain. Opponents of the war were regarded by most people as traitors. In South Africa, the British army used a scorched-earth policy and Boer women and children were herded into concentration camps. There was no proper sanitation and thousands died of disease and starvation.

Emily Hobhouse, who was not a Quaker, and Quakers Joshua and Isabella Rowntree visited the camps and campaigned against them on their return to Britain. In March 1900, in anger at an anti-war meeting in Scarborough, a large crowd attacked the Rowntree factories there and later the private homes of members of the Rowntree family.

A photograph shows Marjorie Ashbery leaning from a truck window. She was part of a Friends Relief Service team that looked after the surviving internees of Belsen after the camp’s liberation in April 1945. When I first saw it, I thought the nearby photograph of a small emaciated girl showed one of the children from Belsen. When I read the text, I found she was from a camp in the Boer War. A later section shows Quaker peace work at the United Nations and the exhibition concludes with a Quaker in Palestine and Israel working for a project run by the World Council of Churches, observing conditions behind the Israeli barrier.

This exhibition is small, but it tells, or starts to tell, several stories. Stories we all should know. Make sure you get to Kendal this year.